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In 2008, the 9­11 G.I. Bill was signed into law, giving college­bound veterans the most comprehensive education benefit ever. As a result, veterans are choosing a collegiate path in record numbers. Unfortunately, feelings of isolation, rusty academic skills, and culture shock are among the major issues that our veterans are facing on campuses nationwide.

Dave Cass

College leaders are very concerned but when it comes to implementing an actual solution, and they are unnecessarily falling short. Conducting research and forming committees both have benefits but won’t help the student veterans who are struggling today. Colleges need faster, more efficient, implementable solutions.

When I hear colleges declare they are “veteran friendly,” my first question is “in what way?” The answer, “We have a center and a tiny support staff” is not enough to help a large number of veterans succeed in the classroom. Veterans are non-traditional students who require unique support. There is no reason for any veteran to feel alone when there is already a team of veterans on campus. There is no reason for veterans to struggle academically when they can learn crucial skills prior to joining the college community. Let’s look at teamwork and skills and offer a pragmatic solution that schools can
implement today:

Team

Why is the military so successful on every battlefield? We go to war as a team; there are no singular acts in the military. The individual is literally surrounded by people with specific expertises. Teamwork and mentorship are built into military training, but they are largely absent in the university setting.

Leaving the team­centric military culture and finding success in the solo environment of college is often viewed as an insurmountable challenge. So why not make college a team sport? There is already a team of veterans on campus surrounding the student; they are just difficult to locate.

”Unfortunately, feelings of isolation, rusty academic skills, and culture shock are among the major issues that our veterans are facing on campuses nationwide.”

At the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), where I teach in the business school, the veterans’ staff consists of two individuals and yet we have approximately 700 veterans on campus. The mentor network is already there, we just need to find ways to tap into it. Veterans in law school are ideal mentors for pre­law veterans. Upperclass engineering students have valuable program knowledge that can be
shared with incoming engineers. Is it possible for the veterans’ services director, usually a retired officer, to be an expert in every career path? No. But a mentor network surrounding each student can serve as a valuable resource for academic, personal, and professional development.

Using Internet technology to build the network of mentors that never sleeps is an efficient solution. John Carroll University and Duke University are two leading schools that are implementing an online mentor network this semester. Their students and staff are benefitting by the ability to quickly help each other from any location without coordinating schedules. While a physical veterans’ center is important to building a sense of community, an online version of the community is much more accessible.

Skills

How is it that our troops are able to successfully repair aircraft, navigate tanks, and manage a nuclear reactor on a submarine? The answer is simple: we teach them how to do it first. I was a helicopter pilot and I think a pretty good one (I have just as many landings as take offs) but if I’d tried to learn on my own, I would have failed. In the military, we first learn skills and then we apply them. Why are we waiting until veterans start school before we help them to succeed?

The average student veteran is 27 years old and hasn’t studied for an academic test or written a paper
in nine years. Veterans are arriving to campus without the required academic skills. The style in which they learned military skills isn’t applicable to college. We expect them to figure it out as they go. Imagine if you asked an active duty soldier to “just wait and figure it out when the mission begins.” If we train for war during peacetime then why not put academic skills training online so veterans can train for success before school begins? Even better, do it in a manner so they can meet their new classmates and
advisers. Now their skills are developed and a team is in place before school begins.

Utilizing Internet technology is a key ingredient to creating a veteran community on campus. Addressing the concept of skills training prior to campus arrival is something that can also be quickly implemented. Taking action is critical, colleges need to create a team of veteran mentors, make them constantly accessible and provide pre­enrollment academic training. Or we could maintain the status quo and form yet another thought­committee or research project.

Dave Cass is an adjunct professor of business at the University of Colorado Boulder; CEO and founder of Uvize, an education technology company with a focus on academic planning tools for student veterans; and author of The Strategic Student: Veteran’s Edition Successfully Transitioning from the Military to College Academics. He is also a former Navy Lt. Cmdr. who served as a helicopter pilot in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Letters to the Editor

11 Letters

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  1. I don’t necessarily agree with “Veterans are non-traditional students who require unique support.”

    Non-traditional yes, but to categorize us a special needs population doesn’t help matters. Veterans are already looked at as PTS damaged war ravaged beings, sometimes hurting employment opportunities. Let’s give credit where credit is due. In the military I was taught to improvise, adapt and overcome. This helped, not hindered, my academics. SVA chapters are everywhere, if there isn’t one at the school you’re at, start one. Find your peers and ‘git er done’.

    Sorry, but we have the abilities to outshine younger and less experienced students, and do so all the time. Not much ‘unique support’ needed, except to get out of our way!

  2. I started college in 2007, and completed my Associates in 2012. I had to start at the beginning, taking quite a lot of non credit courses. I do, however, appreciate the VA having this program and supporting me to return to school. But because of my disabilities, it took along time to get my Associates. And since my disability has increased, I am not able to complete my schooling to receive my Bachelors. It was hard and I struggle.

  3. I don’t think the author meant “special needs” or broken at all by saying that veterans require unique support. All student segments require unique support. At my school student-athletes have unique support, engineering students have their own support systems, international students have unique support..the list goes on etc…This is why the SVA exists; to provide support to a unique student population. Seems to me that having customized support for specific student segments is a far better approach than a one-size-fits all or just “get out of the way” mentality. The fact that you didn’t need support doesn’t mean that your fellow veterans don’t..in fact, the way a mentor network is described implies that you could be one of those support assets. If your school can offer a weapon for success- why not embrace it?

  4. This article, and many like it, makes the mistake (as Pat Q pointed out) of assuming that veterans cannot adjust quickly to the civilian world. This assumption has led to a generation of veterans who expect the kind of support the author wants, and expect it for the rest of their lives. The fact is, that support is not always there. Sure, schools can spend more money on helping veterans and companies can go out of their way to help veterans, but all of that help will end at some point and an individual veteran will have to make his/her way alone. Making colleges do these things just pushes that adjustment point further back. To the detriment of the veteran, in my opinion, because the college atmosphere is much more tolerant of the try, fail, learn, try approach than the business world.

    Teamwork is great, and groups like SVA are great ways to get the help you need. That said, the support staffs that are available for different majors are just as available for veterans as they are for “normal” students. Assuming veterans need a special veterans only support staff to hold their hands is belittling. If Joe Schmo doesn’t need a special staff for whatever makes him different neither does a vet. If an individual veteran has psychological issues stemming from their service, there are any number of avenues for help that are available through any number of organizations (most notably, the VA). Asking colleges to foot the bill for these issues makes veterans appear less attractive on applications and reinforces the stereotype Pat Q described.

  5. I’m a veteran and senior at a large state school. I’ve used my veterans center to meet with a certifying official to process my GI Bill, I’ve used it work with the director to plan veterans events, I’ve used tutors, I’ve used it to coordinate volunteer groups, I’ve used it just to hang out with fellow vets (we have ping pong) and I’ve used it for networking with veteran alumni (one of which hired me for an internship)….HOW on earth is any of this belittling? I’m so grateful for our center and offended that Whitney and Pat don’t want schools to have one (by the way over 70% of college have a veterans services centers..I think it should be 100%). Instead of arguing against veterans having a support center..maybe we should be arguing that Joe Schmo needs one too? I see plenty of them struggling. To Lee’s point, I also see centers for international student, gay/lesbian, athletes, african american, latin american, etc… Networking and mentoring each other based on a common bond Whitney is exactly how the word works. I I love the idea the we can still have each other’s backs as veterans… It makes me feel bad for you that you feel “veteran will have to make his/her way alone”…NOT TRUE.

    I also find it contradictory that Lee and Whitney argue for no support need but then point at SVA chapters as a great organizations for support. Well, which is it…you want support or you don’t?

    No one is saying veterans can’t transition, it’s just WAAY better if we do it as a team and not solo! I wish I brushed up on academic skills before I started school. I’m heading over to my veterans center right now to give a freshmen some advice on course selection. Veterans have each others back…Hoorah!

    And by the way, my college wants more veterans…we bring maturity, diversity, and we’re full paying. They are always asking us to recruit more…throwing a couple hundred grand at a staff and services is nothing for them compared to what we bring. Whitney is way off by thinking schools look at us an expense or a stereotype..they LOVE us.

  6. I thought I’d chime in as the author. I certainly don’t think veterans need any hand holding at all. It upset to hear that was interpreted. Veterans are far from a victims group, quite the contrary we bring strength and focus to campus. I also brought rusty skills when I went back to school and I found nothing insulting about brushing up.

    We also earned benefits as veterans. The more we all create and embrace the veterans network, the more power it has to support each other in our respective career and life endeavors. Our strength is our bond and that can continue far beyond taking the uniform off. The goal of developing a veterans network is to tap into our strengths as a team. We are a unique a student segment in that we care about each other and we are committed to serving- This is a strength not a weakness. Embracing our community via a campus network and services does not set us back it propels us forward and campus embrace us for that reason.

  7. David, just wanted to say that I may be one of the excetions to te Veteran Services Director being a retire officier. I’ reitred enlisted. I don’t think (generally speaking of course) that many officers can relateto the path an enlisted veteran walks. We are a brotherhood that the officers technically share in, but because tey were directed to not socialize wth us, they may not be the right person fo the job. JUST because they were an officer in charge of 50 programs and 5000 people does not make them the best candidate for the job. When you set up a veterans center you must think about what’s best for the vets. It’s all about them. I see a wide range of students from all ages to all walks of life (religion, sex, etc.) and while they are all different and may have different needs, we share one major thing-we are veterans. To all the folk commenting and readin this in school I applaude you, and say thanks. David clearly wants to shed light on veteran students and he has so why not accept/thank him for it. We clearly do not get enough support. Most officers go to school before they become veterans so they have no idea what goes on in our mind as we walk campus. Keep up the good work everyone and congrats to Mark J for being soon to graduate.

  8. Matt,

    That is a really good point about the hiring of veterans directors. Are we hiring the right people? Prior enlisted directors often connect on a deeper than officers and this is something we need to communicate to administration. I see the majority of directors being retired O-6’s.
    We should note that they never made the transition to a civilian career without a pension. Administration will often lean toward the person with highest level of academic achievement which is often why an ex-officer is hired. To your point, this is all about the students and NOT what looks good on paper. Who is going to connect best with the student? Who can help guide a career transition from a military career? The answer is not always “Retired Colonel or Captain”. Great point.

  9. I should also note the some retire O-6’s are absolutely fantastic about putting their rank away and connecting with students. Ultimately it’s about the person not the rank. Great point Matt.

  10. Dave, thanks for your article and for the sparking an important discussion in the comments section.
    On our campus (Urban, Public, Research) we tackled vet center manning slightly differently. Our director is a graduate student and the staff is filled with undergraduate students. Everyone is a veteran, everyone is a student and everyone is part-time – by design. We found that well trained and motivated student vets provide that best support and advice for other student vets.
    The Vet Center doesn’t have VA certifying authority, but it is connected closely to all the key administrative elements of the campus.
    Lastly, the University hired me, a faculty member focused on researching and teaching classes around the veteran experience (to vets and non-vets). Our vets are telling us that the connection from student directly to the vet center and directly to a faculty member who cares is what keeps them around. Data points are limited still, but initial improvements in our veteran retention seems to corroborate that thought.
    Thanks again for your article.

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